Thursday, September 18, 2008

Buffalo State Hospital - the H. H. Richardson Complex



In stark contrast to the majority of locations featured on this blog, the H. H. Richardson Complex, a grand Kirkbride building in Buffalo, NY, is not in danger of being demolished or left to rot. A National Historic Landmark, the building is currently being stabilized and has recently been secured against intruders. Better still, budget is already in place in order to restore the gorgeous Romanesque building to her former glory. The Richardson Center Corporation is overseeing the restoration.

Buffalo State Hospital's original main building complex features a central Administrative building crowned by two 185-foot-tall towers, copper roofed with dormer windows. The masonry is of red medina sandstone, and is one of the earliest examples of H. H. Richardson's trademark style, Richarsonian Romanesque. The central Administrative building is flanked on either side by two sandstone ward pavilions, connected by curved connector hallways. These hallways served a dual purpose - their curvature made it impossible to place beds in the connector hallways, which was a common practice at overcrowded hospitals of the era. At the same time, it allowed a greater level of supervision, as doctors and nurses could easily traverse the entire length of the complex, while orderlies and patients could be confined to a single ward. This notion conformed to the hospital hierarchy of the day, and was touted by John P. Gray, superintendent of Utica State Hospital and an adviser to Richardson, as one of the innovative features of the Buffalo asylum's design.


Hallway of the innermost brick ward, second floor.

The original plan for the hospital was to build the remaining ward pavilions - a total of five on each side - in the same sandstone. However, the outer three wards on either side (the pavilions to the west were for female patients, and those to the right for male) were constructed of brick when the budget fell short. The wards were constructed en echelon; the Administration building had four stories, and on either side, the next two wards had three stories, the following two had two stories, and the final ward (reserved for violent patients) had a single story. In the 1960s, the Male brick wards were demolished in order to build an ugly, utilitarian modern building for the psych center.


A dormitory at the end of the second story of the inner brick ward.


A cast iron stairway in the brick wards. The stairs in the sandstone wards have a higher degree of ornamentation.


The first floor hallway of the center brick ward. This floor contains dozens of discarded wheelchairs.


The top floor of the connector hallway between the two sandstone pavilions.


A door on the second floor of the brick wards. Note that there is a mesh window for the orderlies to look in upon the patients. Like most of the hardware in the hospital, the doorknob is missing.


View of the violent ward of the Female Wing from the attic of the center brick ward. The violent wards were a single story tall, and their footprint was very different from that of the rest of the hosptial.

One feature of the Buffalo State Hospital Kirkbride which differentiates it greatly from many other Kirkbride buildings is the single-loaded main corridors. More expensive from a construction perspective, the southern-facing windows in these corridors provided a maximal amount of light, which was in keeping with Dr. Kirkbride's Moral Treatment plan. Each main corridor is bisected with a smaller corridor to the north, each of which was double-loaded. Bathroom and shower facilities, as well as coatrooms and storage, were placed in these extensions. The footprint of the Topeka State Hospital (now mostly demolished) appears to have been based upon this design.


Another brick ward hallway.


Ornate fireplace in the Administration building.

The majority of the complex is in remarkably good shape, especially considering its long abandonment. The most significant damage is to the hallway connecting the inner and center brick wards. In order to get from one to the next, one must carefully pass over a "bridge" of swaying, uncollapsed floor.


At some point between 2004 and 2008, someone placed a radiator grill over the collapse bridge.


Two geriatric chairs in a corner of a dayroom in the sandstone wards.


A coatroom in the brick wards.


Some medical equipment remains in the pitch-black depths of the single-story violent ward. The EEG machine in the background was manufactured by Medcraft, the same company which designed the B-24 Glissando ECT machine, the standard in electroshock therapy from the 50s through the 70s.


Shower stalls with privacy walls in the sandstone wards. In many similar hospitals, the showers would be communal, with no such walls in place. Here there are walls, but no doors - ensuring that the orderlies could keep a watch on patients even as they could not view each other.


Hallway in the sandstone wards. Note the brightness here as a result of the 12-foot-tall windows in the single-loaded corridor.


An original sandstone fireplace featuring a medieval "Green Beast" motif. Sadly, at some point this particular example was painted over in the ward colors of the time.


Detail from an unpainted "Green Beast" fireplace.

At some point, while the sprinkler system was still functional, a fire broke out in one of the patient rooms on the outer sandstone ward. The result is that the smoke clung to the upper reaches of the walls until the sprinklers kicked in, causing the soot to run down. The result is actually rather stunning, although certainly nearly disastrous. Fortunately, the structural damage is minimal - the room in which the fire originated is fairly charred, but outside of that, no serious damage was done.


Soot runs down the walls, the paint now peeling.


A patient's bed in the fire-damaged ward.


The sprinklers did not kick in here, and the heavy soot near the 16-foot-high ceiling is evidence of the amount of smoke generated in the fire.


Sunset through the windows in a dormitory inside the fire-damaged ward.


Sunset inside a solarium which was later converted to a dormitory. Note the 16-foot ceilings and the ornamental pillars.


The twin towers after dark.

For another perspective on this rare architectural treasure, visit the Pasilalinic-Sympathetic Compass.

ADDENDUM, 8/22/08

Monica Pelligrino Faix, Project Coordinator for the Richardson Center Corporation, has sent me the following official statement to post up on the Kingston Lounge:

The Richardson Center Corporation is working on the rehabilitation of the Richardson Olmsted Complex. Future plans envision public access to the Complex, although the organization cannot do so at this time because the buildings remain the property of the NYS Office of Mental Health. This board is undertaking a monumental task to stabilize and secure the buildings for future uses. One use will be an Architecture and Visitor Center for Buffalo and the region; planning for the remaining uses are underway as part of the master plan process being led by Chan Krieger Sieniewicz. Part of the long term plan for public access and reuse is to protect the buildings from vandalism, and therefore security patrols and closing up the buildings have increased. Please feel free to contact me directly at monica@richardson-olmsted.com, or visit our website, www.richardson-olmsted.com, for updates on our progress

I would urge my readers to remember that the Richardson Complex is actively being preserved, and that significant activity is already underway to ensure that these wonderful structures remain for future generations to enjoy. Anything which wastes the time or resources of the people working on the preservation efforts directly takes away from the resources available for preservation. Please enjoy the publicly accessible areas around the buildings and grounds legally and respectfully; I have no doubt that, in the not too distant future, the site will again be open for tours.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Hart Island



Taken in conjunction with Marie Lorenz, who provided not only good company, but passage on her lovely hand-made boat, the Tide and Current Taxi.




There are dozens of islands in the waters around New York City, and many of them have rich and little-known histories. Perhaps the most fascinating of all of them is Hart Island, 131 acres of land just east of City Island at the western edge of Long Island Sound. Originally called "Heart Island" due to the fact that its footprint resembles the shape of the organ, the "e" was soon dropped.

Hart Island has been a prisoner of war camp a number of times; in the mid-19th century, it housed confederate POWs; in the mid-20th, it held POWs from World War 2. The island has also been home to a prison and a womens' asylum, a workhouse and NIKE missile base. But if the average person knows anything at all about Hart Island, it is likely the fact that, since 1869, the island has served as New York's sixth potter's field. Approximately 800,000 bodies are buried on the island, making it the largest publicly funded cemetery in the world.

In addition to the potter's field, which takes up the entire northern half of the island, and has now moved to the southern tip, there are a number of buildings remaining on the island.


Southern entrance to the Pavilion building.

The Pavilion building, built in 1885, was originally an insane asylum for women. It handled the overflow from the asylum on Roosevelt Island, and typically received chronic cases. In the 1970s, it saw its final use as a drug rehab facility called Phoenix House.


The dedication plaque on the Pavilion building.



Patients at Phoenix House did occupational therapy as a part of their treatment. In the Pavilion building, they worked on leather shoes. Some of the shoes are scattered about near the building; it's remarkable that in over three decades, they remain in relatively good shape.


The first floor of the Pavilion building. All evidence points to this floor having been repurposed as a combination of kitchen and dining hall.



View into one of the kitchen areas in the Pavilion building.



Second-floor landing of the northern stairwell.


The second floor of the Pavilion.


It appears as if all the shoes were piled up here when the shoemaking operations ceased.

Hart Island has a web of overgrown streets connecting the various buildings in the center of the island. A few of the roads, such as the one leading to the monuments at the north end of the island, show signs of recent use, but most have been completely abandoned along with the structures, the streetlights, and the rest of the once-bustling central portion of the island.




Attached to the physical plant is this Romanesque dynamo room, built in 1912.

Many of the smaller structures on the island were used by the Department of Corrections as records storage buildings. Today, hundreds of thousands of pages of moldering records slowly decay in these abandoned buildings.



In 1935, a new Catholic chapel was built to replace one which had, by that point, become dilapidated. The chapel is still in remarkably good shape.


The exterior of the chapel.


A view towards where the altar would have been from the mezzanine level.


The stained glass is sadly gone from this window. On the milk crate on the mezzanine, there are two grenades. Downstairs in the chapel proper, dozens of grenades are piled up in another milk crate.

Towards the southern part of the island, a small white building stands next to recent excavations. As the potter's field expands, the buildings will be demolished to make way for new graves.



The last building we visited was at the edge of the newest burial fields. Another structure that was part of the original womens' insane hospital, and repurposed to be a part of Phoenix House, this ward building was in much worse shape than the Pavilion building. The floors were ready to go in several places, and the roof had completely fallen in on significant sections of the northern part of the building.


In the courtyard between the wards to the west, there was an open burial pit in which a goose had taken residence.


Much of the second floor was collapsing. Here, the roof is making a valiant effort to fight off nature, but as always, the water has been winning the battle.


Some patient beds remain on the somewhat more intact southern side of the building.

Beneath the ward in which the patient beds were found, we came upon a room that had several empty pine boxes inside. The bags full of Tyvek suits and rubber gloves helped tell the story of the boxes - here were the former resting places of people who had been buried on Hart Island, but disinterred at the requests of their families.

(ADDENDUM: Melinda Hunt has pointed to the lack of certain specific markings on the boxes, as well as the lack of dirt, as evidence that these were not, in fact, disinterred coffins. Rather, they were coffins that were never buried. I believe her correction warrants notation on this blog.)



I might at this point mention the work of Melinda Hunt, and her Hart Island Project. Hunt has been working for years to open up the records of the people buried on Hart Island, in order that families can more easily find the graves of their kin. At the same time, she works to destigmatize the concept of mass burials; while there is a misconception that only the homeless are buried in the potter's field, this is simply not true. The majority of those buried are infants; in addition, those who cannot afford burial elsewhere often come to Hart Island, as well as anybody whom the city cannot identify within a certain time period.



On our way out of this building, we passed by one of the mass graves, apparently for adults. Since no burials were being performed on the day of our visit, the graves were covered over with plywood. A half-dozen yellow rubber gloves lay nearby. When 150 coffins fill each adult grave, they are covered over with dirt, and marked with a simple marker.



The first person buried in the potter's field was Louisa Van Slyke, a 24-year-old woman, in 1869. Since then, over three quarters of a million people have found final rest on the island. The records for most of these burials were lost in a fire.

The potter's field at Hart Island is the largest cemetery in the United States.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The Hotel Adler, Sharon Springs, NY



Sharon Springs, NY, was once a bustling resort town built upon a natural mineral spring. It was thought that the high levels of sulphur, magnesium, and iron in the water provided a variety of health benefits, the exact specifications of which varied widely over the years. By the end of the 19th century, it was a highly fashionable escape from New York; patrons included the Vanderbilts and Oscar Wilde. By the time of the Depression, there were more than a dozen resort hotels operating out of the town, alongside a highly regarded golf course, a number of bath houses, and other amenities common to resorts of the era.

Among the last of these built was the Adler, which first opened its doors in 1927. Already the town was fading; Saratoga Springs was competing for, and for the most part winning, the patronage of the prestigious. Add to this the economic hardships of the Depression, which happened only a few years after the hotel was built, and the hotel was economically troubled from the beginning.

But after World War 2, the town again came into prominence, now as a getaway spot for wealthy German Jews, who were not welcomed easily at Saratoga. In 1946, Ed Koch, future mayor of New York, bussed tables at the Adler. The town was again booming, and the kitchens in all of the old resort hotels were made Kosher; in a phenomenon not unlike the Borscht Belt of lower New York, Sharon Springs became a major Jewish escape.

But the decline of resorts in general, as well as the building of the New York State Thruway, which bypassed Sharon Springs, took their toll. One by one, the resort hotels and bath houses closed; the Adler was among the last to shut its doors, in 2004. Since then, little has changed there - the occasional vandal has sadly snuck in, and there is graffiti vandalism throughout various areas of the hotel, including the grand dining room. But things are looking up for the hotel - unlike other notable Sharon Springs hotels, such as the Pavilion and the Washington, it was not demolished; now it has been purchased by a group which plans to restore it (as well as the Imperial Baths and the Columbia Hotel) and remake Sharon Springs into a resort community once again. Hopefully, this grand five-story Spanish Revival building will once again see life.


The grand lobby of the hotel, showing some original architectural flourishes.


A bedroom, with furniture still intact. The majority of the rooms in the Adler still have beds and dressers; in some cases, ancient TVs or old telephones add another glimpse into its past.


The third floor elevator.


A pile of old mattresses. Several rooms had clearly been disused longer than the majority of the hotel; many were used to warehouse surplus items such as these.


The grand stairwell running up the center of the building.


A fifth-floor room; note the tin still intact along the sloped ceiling.


A tiny bathroom, lacking a sink, inside a closet-sized room with a skylight on the top floor.


A private dining room on the first floor.